Dr Atakohu Middleton (Photo by Simon Smith).

How does tikanga affect the work of Māori journalists? Atakohu Middleton, a former journalist turned academic, on her PhD research into reo-Māori journalism.


What does it take to make a journalist? A love of words is a good start.

My mother helped to nurture mine. She was determined that my two brothers and I would be the most literate humans on the planet. Before we got to school, we had the basics of reading and writing sorted. 

Mum was Fayleen, a Queenslander of Irish stock who left the great sunburned continent in the mid-1960s on her OE, bound for Wellington and a job as a secretary at Mobil Oil. 

There, she met a tall, handsome and cheeky Ngāti Māhanga fulla named Ron who built service stations for Mobil. Ko tērā tērā. That was that. The OE became a move to the North Shore in Auckland. Three kids followed.

My parents hadn’t enjoyed flash educations, but they valued the written word. Encyclopedia sellers must have loved my mum. I recall the shelves of the multi-volume treasures that we devoured: the World Book Encyclopedia, the New Zealand’s Heritage series of magazines carefully stored in white, padded binders, and Time-Life sets on the history of flight and the history of sail. 

Dad set his own example. He read the New Zealand Herald every morning and an Auckland Star every afternoon. I learned that what was in newspapers was important. Dad also read the Time-Life books and the odd bestseller. He had a copy of former prime minister Robert Muldoon’s 1974 memoir, The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk, his entire adult life.  

When I started writing my pakiwaitara, my stories, at around seven, my proud mum would type them on her electric typewriter. 

Atakohu and her brother Keith with their mum, Faye.

I went on to write for school magazines and yearbooks as well as the North Shore Times Advertiser, then run by local legend Pat Gundry. And, when I was 17, I got into a six-month journalism crash course at Auckland Technical Institute, now AUT. 

The course taught us practical skills — typing, shorthand, interviewing, news style, court reporting and the likes — but it didn’t challenge our thinking. We were socialised for mainstream newsrooms, which, in the 1980s, were busy othering those who were making entirely reasonable requests for Te Tiriti o Waitangi to be honoured. 

I was the first cadet appointed to the Sunday Star in early 1988, working under editor Jenny Wheeler and writers Donna Chisholm and Joanna Wane. They were great examples for a callow reporter, and I admire them all.  

I didn’t go into journalism with the sense of service that I have now. Back then, I was self-indulgent, nosy about other people’s lives, and fascinated by how they made sense of the world. I loved the feeling of a good yarn coming together under my fingers. 

At the same time, I was also intrigued by university study. No one in my whānau had been to university, but the idea of reading, thinking and writing for its own sake seemed exotic and appealing. In my mid-20s, I did a BA in English at the University of Auckland, working as a reporter to pay the bills.   

Reclaiming identity

I was at the New Zealand Herald in the early 2000s when I started reclaiming my Māhangatanga. 

We’d always known about our whakapapa, but in our childhoods it was treated as an interesting historical artefact rather than an identity. For Dad, getting ahead meant living ā-Pākehā nei — like the mainstream. 

Mum knew better. She’d say: “Dad doesn’t know much, or want to know much. But you should be proud of your Māori heritage, and nothing is stopping you finding out more for yourself.”

I started doing just that in my ‘30s, after a brush with cancer led to a reassessment of my priorities. There was a gap in my knowledge of myself, and it was yearning to be filled. It was time to get nosy about my own identity. 

After I reconnected with my marae, Te Papa o Rotu at Whatawhata, I obsessed about whether I had the “right” to claim a Māori identity. I hadn’t grown up in tikanga and reo, and I was the only person in my immediate family with any interest. What gave me the right to turn up now?

These days, I know better. Whakapapa is whakapapa, and the cultural suppression that came with colonisation doesn’t erase it, although it can make reconnecting harder. 

I started learning te reo in earnest, doing courses at Unitec, AUT and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa at Māngere. I built my pātaka kōrero, my vocab, listening to iwi radio, Māori TV news and TVNZ’s Te Karere. I became intrigued by Māori-language journalism, in particular what went on behind the scenes.

In 2015, I did a one-year, full-time postgraduate diploma in te reo at AUT. Much to my surprise, the door to a doctorate opened, and I stumbled through it. I’d done enough study by then to know that no substantial research existed on reo-Māori journalism, and I wanted that gap filled. I wanted those journalists’ work to be documented and validated. 

(It was while doing my PhD that I acquired my Māori name, but that’s a story for another day.)

Radio Waatea: Tumano Harawira in Manako studio, Radio Waatea.

Tumano Harawira in Manako studio, Radio Waatea.

Unpicking reo-Māori journalism

I gathered my information by filming 11 reporters at work, yielding 227 hours of video data, and interviewed 35. Thanks to these generous journos letting me dog their steps, we now have a thorough rundown of how Māori-language journalism came to be and what it is. The whole research project is here — but a more user-friendly summary follows. 

To set the context, journalism in te reo Māori is state-funded through Te Māngai Pāho, the Māori broadcasting funding agency, under the national agenda to revitalise the language. News itself is a by-product of the need for a broad “languagescape”. 

However, one of the conditions of funding is that each story must be at least 70 percent in te reo. This is no small order when just 10.6 percent of the Māori population, or some 50,000 people, speak te reo well enough to be interviewed in it. A far greater number are learning. 

My research has three main findings, and they all weave into each other. 

The first is that, just as tikanga shapes social interactions in the Māori world, so tikanga has a substantial influence on the way reo-Māori journalists do their work. 

Māori journalists aim to observe tikanga to the best of their ability while engaged in news work. They see themselves as Māori first and journalists second, with a responsibility to respect and uphold socially-sanctioned practices such as whakawhanaungatanga (building and maintaining relationships) and manaakitanga (taking care of others). 

As Raiha Johns, of The Hui, said: “Tikanga is something you can’t turn off.”  

Tikanga and reo go hand-in-hand, and one of the things I most enjoyed about the research was documenting how journalists used and re-used elements of whaikōrero or oratory — such as whakaaraara pā (sentry’s calls), whakataukī (proverbs and sayings), and karakia (incantations) — to illuminate their stories. 

My favourite was the phrase: Kua puta mai ia i te korokoro o Te Parata (He/she escaped from the throat of Te Parata) to describe someone who’d succeeded against unfavourable odds, whatever the context. 

The phrase comes from the voyage of Te Arawa to Aotearoa, when the Tūwharetoa ancestor Ngātoroirangi, who’d been abducted and was on board, called up terrible winds that sent the canoe into a whirlpool called Te Korokoro-o-Te-Parata, or the throat of Parata. Only at the crew’s pleading did Ngātoroirangi relent, allowing the vessel to sail free. 

Arana Taumata, who was the executive producer of Te Karere at the time (and is now with Māori Television), told me that such an allusion was “clever and beautiful”. 

“And it’s a smart way to recount our history . . . and draws a relevance, a parallel to a contemporary situation. It’s beautiful to me, because it affirms and validates the richness of our language. We don’t need to translate Pākehā idiom, sayings, proverbs or whatever — te reo Māori has heaps that can be used and revived.” 

(By the, way, while we’re talking about Te Karere, if you want the full story of where Scotty Morrison got his trademark sign-off “Turou Hawaiki!”, check out page 135 of my thesis.)  

The second finding of my research was that the requirements of news reporting and tikanga were not always hoa haere pai or comfortable companions, with tensions between the process-oriented nature of Māori social interaction and the time-constrained, output-focused nature of news. 

Some of the issues that arose included whether you could ask someone to leave the paepae (orator’s bench) during whaikōrero in order to get an interview in time, and dealing with non-Māori camera-people who inadvertently or carelessly trampled tikanga on marae. Another challenge for journalists was how to approach the tikanga of kirimate (“skin of the dead”), where several generations around a deceased are left to mourn and do not speak publicly.   

Mere McLean, at the time a Māori Television reporter, summed up the dilemma around kirimate: As a journalist, she wants to talk to someone as close as possible to the deceased: “That is the scoop.” But, as a Māori, “I don’t want to do that, lest I trample the mana of that family. But with my reporter’s hat on, I have to ask the question . . . in my opinion, that’s breaking tikanga.”   

These sort of situations and tensions could result in cognitive dissonance — that uneasy feeling that things aren’t quite square. Many of the journalists had strategies to resolve this dissonance, with karakia prominent. 

For example, journalists recited karakia when they were going on to a marae as waewae tapu without time to go through protocol, or going into places they felt were tapu, such as burial caves, and as a spiritual re-set if things felt out of kilter. They had to call on their own tikanga to find equilibrium between their identity as Māori and their identity as reporters. 

RNZ’s Shannon Haunui-Thompson.

Radio New Zealand’s Shannon Haunui-Thompson puts it like this: 

“There’s a whole lot of tikanga in te ao Māori, but there’s a whole lot of tikanga around being a journalist, full stop, and it’s always just a balance, really. You have to be thoughtful in whatever situation you are in . . . for me, it’s always tika, pono, manaakitanga . . . if I follow those, then . . . the mana for both parties is upheld.”

The study’s third finding is just how much reo-Māori journalists have to juggle compared to their mainstream counterparts. 

Unlike commercial and state-owned media, reo-Māori media are primarily agents of language revitalisation. In that world, reporters have to observe tikanga, the requirements of journalism, and Te Māngai Pāho’s requirement that each story is 70-100 percent in te reo. If journalists can’t find a reo speaker for a kaupapa, they can interview in English and increase the reo quotient through voiceovers and pieces to camera. 

However, in general, they need to encourage anyone with some reo to use it, and their best strategy to get the soundbite they need is a big dose of manaakitanga and encouragement. As Kereama Wright, now at Te Ao, told me:

You’re not just there to get the story, you’re there to empower someone to deliver the message in their native tongue. And I love it. I’m a product of second-language-learning parents, and I can see the importance of it. So we’ll sit there for half an hour sometimes and practise the kōrero. Or sometimes we’ll write it. It happens quite often. Often it’s just repetition, repeating the answer until they get confident enough, and we’ll take a number of takes. 

Interestingly, reo-Māori journalists weren’t particularly bothered by interviewee errors, as long as the message was clear. They adopted what academics Poia Rewi and Rawinia Higgins call a liberal, compromising attitude. They’re not fixated on linguistic accuracy and take the position that a spoken language is a living language.

At this stage, I can imagine the editor looking at my word count with alarm, so it’s time to wrap up by sending a pīki (big) mihi to the journalists who made this research possible — without your help, e hoa mā, I would have no story to tell. 

Another mihi: when you do a piece of research like this, you have supervisors — and mine, Dr Helen Sissons and Professor Hinematau McNeill were the best kind: eagle-eyed, attentive, and positive. 

When I graduate at the Aotea Centre in Tāmaki in late August, the two people who showed me the value of words and the joy of reading will be absent. Mum and Dad both died relatively young — Mum at 50 (the age I am now) and Dad at 62. 

To contemplate what we three kids didn’t get to share with them makes me sad. Just before the big moment on stage, I will call them to me ā-wairua nei, in spirit, and thank them, yet again, for instilling in me a love of words. This thesis is for them. 


Dr Atakohu Middleton (Ngāti Māhanga, Pākehā) is a lecturer in the School of Communication Studies at AUT/Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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